Indonesia: Here’s why Yogyakarta’s tourism boom is a double-edged sword

A tourist at Prambanan Temple Compounds in Yogyakarta. Source: Shutterstock/zaferkizilkaya

TOURISTS are flocking to Indonesia, and the historical city of Yogyakarta (or Jogjakarta) is riding the wave. 

According to Indonesia Investments, the number of foreigners who visited Southeast Asia’s most populous nation was up 20.9 percent in the first five months of 2017, compared to the same period a year earlier.

Yogyakarta appears to have benefited from this surge in tourism, with consistently strong double-digit growth figures for foreign arrivals at Adi Sucipto airport in 2017 having reached a peak of around 82 percent in March,  according to figures obtained by Travel Wire Asia from Indonesia’s Badan Pusat Statistik.

In reality, the number of foreign tourists who visited Yogyakarta this year was potentially even higher as some foreign tourists initially arrive in Jakarta or Bali prior to traveling to other parts of Indonesia, including Yogyakarta.

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It is easy to perceive the appeal of this popular city. Yogyakarta, often viewed as a beacon of traditional Javanese culture, is a gateway to two Unesco World Heritage Sites and the home of the Kraton, the palace of a royal dynasty that continues to govern until this present day.

These icons, combined with a multitude of universities, friendly locals and a flourishing arts scene, have historically created a genteel, cultured and laid-back atmosphere that has appealed to Yogyakarta’s many visitors over the years.

However, Yogyakarta’s booming tourism industry has created challenges that potentially threaten the very characteristics that made Yogyakarta so appealing in the first place. Of particular concern are increasing pressures on tourism infrastructure, and the possibility of cultural clashes as the presence of international tourism is felt more widely and pervasively throughout Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta’s infrastructure challenges have manifested in a variety of ways, such as more frequent instances of traffic congestion, and an airport that has had to handle more than twice its official capacity of passengers annually.

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In addition, rampant hotel construction has negatively impacted water resources, according to Universitas Gajah Mada, a top public research university located in Yogyakarta. Governments at various levels have made efforts to tackle some of these issues.

The Jokowi government has commissioned the construction of a new international airport in Yogyakarta that will have a capacity of 50 million passengers annually, and well-known tourist and shopping strip Malioboro has been modified by Yogyakarta’s authorities to become more pedestrian-friendly in the eyes of some locals and visitors, however, much remains to be done.

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Shofi, who lives overseas but returns to her home in Yogyakarta annually, has noticed the change over the years: “The traffic has become worse over the last few years … almost as bad as Jakarta sometimes, and public transport needs to be improved.”

In order to reduce the volume of traffic around the city center while continuing to attract more tourists, the government has begun plans to establish tourist areas outside the city, especially in the regency of Bantul.

According to information provided to Travel Wire Asia, one of the government projects in the pipeline is Atala Dwipa, an ambitious 1000ha tourist complex that will offer visitors a range of attractions in areas of eco-tourism, adventure tourism and local culture.

Part of the complex will also cater to corporate travelers and MICE delegates by providing meetings and conference facilities. Regional projects like Atala Dwipa are intended to provide economic opportunities to rural communities while simultaneously reducing pressure on infrastructure in the city.

However, establishing new centers of tourism may present its own challenges, especially on to the periphery of Yogyakarta. Elements of conservative Yogyakartan society may not be prepared for the cultural clashes that can emerge as the presence of foreign tourists becomes more pervasive outside of the city.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some residents of Yogyakarta are still unaccustomed to the more liberal fashion styles and behavior sometimes displayed by foreigners who visit local beaches.

Zaya (not her real name), a tourism consultant who advises institutional investors, told Travel Wire Asia that some of her high net-worth clients and associates are interested but hesitant towards investing in Yogyakarta’s tourism sector due to a potential “cultural mismatch” between local communities and foreign tourists.

“Unlike the Balinese, people in Yogyakarta are not used to foreigners walking around in bikinis.”

This is a view contradicted by Yogyakarta Chamber of Commerce vice-chairman Wawan Harmawan, who told Travel Wire Asia that social adjustment to a greater influx of tourists is unnecessary as “Yogyakarta is already established as a world-class tourist destination and, up until now, the simplicity of daily life in Yogyakarta has not been affected”.

Indeed, the contemporary flavor of well-known Yogyakartan artists such as hip-hop outfit Jogja Hip Hop Foundation and visual artist Eko Nugroho point to the large extent to which Western culture has permeated Yogyakartan society.

Nevertheless, if Yogyakarta wants to position itself as global tourist hub, adjustments will have to be made at various levels. As Shofi put it, “The government will have to prepare in terms of infrastructure, and the society will have to prepare in terms of its culture.”